So, you need to choose a veterinarian. You’re new to the area, or you’re a first-time pet owner. There are lots of veterinary practices within a reasonable distance from you – how do you pick?
WORD OF MOUTH
If you already know pet-owners nearby, ask. Don’t just ask what practice, ask why. Everyone looks for different things in a veterinarian – something that is very important to you may not be particularly important to your neighbor. Vets and their staff come in all types – curt, but efficient; friendly, but scattered; working to the client’s convenience instead of their own. And, from my personal experience, veterinarians can be an ego-driven lot, so make sure to ask about the vet’s personality as well.
This can be very important, both for routine and emergency visits. When I moved into my current home, I chose a practice which advertised that they were open until 7:00 PM two nights a week. I commute to work every day, and having these two days where I could make an appointment after my work hours were complete was a big plus for me. Sadly, the first time I tried to make an appointment for 6 PM, I was told “oh, no, the vet leaves at 4:00 PM, we stay open until 7:00 just for pick-ups”. False advertising to say the least. Although many practices are open until noon on Saturdays, don’t ever count on being able to get those appointments as, for obvious reasons, they are the most sought after.
I finally found a practice which is open 24/7/365 – and regular vet appointments are available between 7:00 AM and 10:00 PM 7 days a week. I’ve never looked back. I don’t know how many, if any, practices like this exist in the country, but the convenience has certainly made my life easier.
If the vet has a hospital for overnight stays for sick pets (and most do), ask if there is a staff member on duty when an animal will be there overnight. If there is, make sure they’re at least a Licensed Vet Tech, since anyone who is not either a doctor, or an LVT, is prohibited from making important decisions about the care of your pet. Some practices will actually send a sick animal home with an LVT overnight so that the animal can be monitored. I’d hesitate leaving a post-surgery, or otherwise ill animal in a place where they would be alone for hours at a time. To me that defeats the purpose of remaining in a hospital overnight.
The staff should be friendly, and communicative. A good vet’s office will be busy and sometimes hectic, but the front-desk people should be able to keep their poise under difficult circumstances. Calling in for prescription refills (or requesting them online) should be friendly and efficient. Waits of over two business days for refills should be a cause for concern.
Veterinarians are busy people, and are often called to handle sudden emergencies. That having been said, they should communicate test results with you in a timely fashion (no more than 3 days after the test has been performed), and should be amenable to answering questions. Don’t chat during such a call, but do make sure that you ask all important questions, and that the vet is obviously hearing you and responding.
The front office should be clean and orderly. Still, if you come at a time where there are many people and animals in the lobby, and a few emergencies to boot, you can expect some disorder. However, that disorder should look as if it’s been there for an hour or two, not for a day or two.
The exam room should be spotless at all times, except in the very rare instance where you need to be escorted into a room immediately (emergency). You should never see blood, hair in clumps, or mud in an exam room. Just like with humans, medical conditions should be as close to sterile as humanly possible.
No vet’s office will allow clients back into the lab area, but they should not hide it from you. Glass doors or windows should permit you to see into those areas as an extra boost to trust.
If your dog or cat is in the hospital, how willing is the staff to answer your questions about their status? Although a busy tech can’t always answer a phone call when it comes in, they should be more than willing to return your call to fill you in on the condition of your fur-baby. Compassionate techs have animals of their own, and understand that owners worry.
Make sure the practice you’ve chosen is American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) accredited. Although practices which do not have this accreditation can be excellent, having the certification can put your mind at rest that the facility offers a high standard of care.
If you think you’ve found the right practice, make an appointment for a vet to see your dog or cat. Explain that this is a well visit, and that you’d like enough time to chat with the veterinarian about areas of concern.
Watch how the vet interacts with your pet. For instance, my vet rarely puts my dogs on the exam table, preferring to crawl around on the floor with them. She takes her time and ensures, as much as possible, that they are not terrified by the experience. (Her Vet Techs are also obliged to crawl around the floor, and I’ve never heard an objection from them.) A good vet should be able to calmly interact with your animal without the need for tons of reinforcements.
Please be kind and considerate, however, and warn the staff if your pet is likely to bite or scratch upon examination. If this is the case, don’t object when the techs muzzle your dog, or otherwise protect themselves. Although their job is to take care of the animal, they have every right to avoid injury.
You can’t really know this on a first visit, but an ethical veterinarian will advise you to go somewhere else (usually a human pharmacy) if the costs of your pet’s medication is prohibitive in the practice. A good vet wants their patients well taken care of more than they want the extra money to come into their office.
Don’t ask about financial arrangements during the first visit. Many practices will work with you to split a large bill up into several months, but not until you are a regular client. Just as you need to have a certain level of trust in their medical abilities, they need to develop a level of trust that you are financially responsible.
If you’re happy with the interaction, then you’ve probably found the best vet for your pet. Be aware, however, that you may have to see other veterinarians in the same practice should you need an urgent appointment. And you won’t care for some of them. Make a mental note (or a physical one, if your memory is like mine) of the name of the particular vet you aren’t comfortable with, so you can request someone else if possible. Still, there will be times when you have no choice, and you’ll have to be able to deal with that.
LEAVING A PRACTICE
If you feel you have to move to another practice, don’t worry. It’s normal to feel a little guilt when doing so, but veterinarian’s offices are used to people coming and going. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.
Make sure to get your pet’s records before you go. Like human doctors, veterinarians often charge for transferring records, but it is money well-spent. You certainly want your new vet to have access to all pertinent information.
One last word – if you plan on adopting animals in the future, make sure the practice is willing to give you a reference. Some practices, to avoid liability, will require you to give permission before giving out information.
With the right vet, you are giving your adopted dog or cat the best chance for a long and healthy life. You will have a loving companion for years to come.